Everything but the gull: how Ben Watt fought the Covid blues with birdsong
Cetti’s warbler!” says Ben Watt suddenly, raising a finger to indicate the new addition to the ambient soundscape. Listen, he says, to the opening “chi” followed by what sounds “almost like a little typewriter going off”. Watts does that, interrupts himself, or the silence if he’s not talking, to announce a new bird he’s seen or heard. “Blackcap!” he’ll exclaim. “Chiffchaff!”
We’re sitting in a bird hide overlooking a reed bed and an expanse of water on a gorgeous spring day. A heron stands, still as a photo, two metres in front of us. It could be rural East Anglia – apart from the roar of traffic and the giant arched structure in the background. These are, respectively, the A406 north circular and Wembley Stadium. And the place we’re at is the Welsh Harp reservoir, named after a pub that no longer exists.
Watt – musician, singer, songwriter, DJ, remixer, label owner, one half (with his wife Tracey Thorn) of Everything But the Girl – might seem like an unlikely birder, but it was probably inevitable. If the music came from his father, Scottish jazz band leader Tommy Watt, then the birds and nature came from his mother, journalist Romany Bain, a lover of the natural world. She signed Ben up to the RSPB when he was seven, got him books. “It does stick,” he says. Yeah, I suggest, but birdwatching’s not very rock’n’roll, is it? “Erm,” he says patiently. “I think that solitary contemplative thing – there is that side to all rock’n’rollers. They need a place to think.”
These two strands – music and nature – have run through his life, intertwining at times. On Box Hill, the opening track on Watt’s debut album written when he was 18 or 19, is a snapshot of an afternoon spent at a place he used to go with his parents. “There was a restorative power to being in nature on a sunny day I wanted to write about even then.”
When EBTG went into a self-imposed hiatus at the turn of the century, Watt, like the grebes here on the reservoir, dived below the surface, immersing himself in the world of electronic music production and DJing, before emerging somewhere different, but not far from where he started out. His 2014 comeback album, Hendra, a contemplative return to his folk-rock roots, has more of nature’s restorative power. A song called Golden Ratio is about how easy it is to get wrapped up in self-absorption and negativity even when a lovely day on the Dorset cliffs is staring you in the face. Matthew Arnold’s Field, meanwhile, is about scattering his dad’s ashes in Oxfordshire.
“It’s often a background to the songs. You know, big nature – what was it Wordsworth called it? Immutability. That sort of affectlessness of nature that it is just there doing its thing regardless of what we are doing. And I suppose that’s why I don’t feel particularly sentimental about it. I’m awestruck by it, because it’s just doing its thing and we either respect it or we fuck it up.”
Tracey Thorn doesn’t share all her husband’s hobbies. “She doesn’t like birdwatching at all, but she loves walking and she loves plants so we can gel on a walk, with me looking up and her looking at her feet.”
Last December, Watt, who is now 58, released an album called Storm Damage: a mid-life record maybe, melancholic certainly, but not maudlin. He had started a UK tour with his trio when Covid struck. The London show was cancelled hours before they were due to go on. Then the America leg was suspended, as was Japan and Australia. “It really hit me for six,” he says. But Watt found some solace here at the Welsh Harp. He hadn’t been for a while and was struck by its state. “First I thought, ‘Oh, it’s kind of gritty and urban.’ Then I just looked out one day – at the wheelie bins and the neglect, the tideline of microplastic – and thought, ‘This is actually really bad. I need to look into this.'”
The Welsh Harp has a colourful history. Constructed in the early 1800s to feed the Grand Union Canal, the reservoir became a fashionable centre for recreational boating. The Old Welsh Harp was a popular pub and music venue. Churchill is said to have had a seaplane parked on the water during the war, ready to whisk him away from his bunker in nearby Dollis Hill. Then in the 1950s it was granted site of special scientific interest status, for its breeding, nesting and migrant birds and wildlife.